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More Power to Them

Dodgers expect McGriff to fill a void and take heat off Green

March 12, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. — They say numbers don't lie, but do they always tell the whole truth and nothing but? With new Dodger first baseman Fred McGriff, who is expected to provide the additional left-handed power threat the team lacked last season, it's sometimes hard to tell.

Clearly, McGriff has been a consistent offensive force, hitting 30 home runs or more in 10 of his 16 big league seasons and driving in 80 runs or more for 15 consecutive years. With 478 career home runs, he is 22 shy of 500.

But some numbers blur this picture of production. McGriff, now 39, was traded from one of the worst teams in baseball, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, to the Chicago Cubs on July 27, 2001.

The Cubs led the National League Central at the time, by 3 1/2 games over Houston and 7 1/2 games over St. Louis, and McGriff was supposed to be the final piece to their playoff puzzle.

McGriff, who signed a one-year, $3.75-million deal with the Dodgers in December, put up decent numbers in 49 games for Chicago, hitting .282 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs, but the Cubs went 28-31 after the deal, lost the division to the Cardinals and failed to make the playoffs.

McGriff then hit .273 with 30 homers and 103 RBIs for the Cubs in 2002, completing a four-year stretch in which he averaged 30 homers and 104 RBIs, but Chicago finished a disappointing 67-95, 30 games behind division-winning St. Louis.

What's more, McGriff hit .205 with only one homer and 10 RBIs in April, providing much of his power after the Cubs fell off the pace in the division.

That performance, combined with the 97 homers and 352 RBIs he had for the lowly Devil Rays from 1998-2001, prompted one Chicago columnist to call McGriff's numbers "hollow" and refer to McGriff as the "Tin Man."

To which Dodger General Manager Dan Evans responds: "I look at 30 homers and 103 RBIs, an on-base percentage [.353] that was way above our first basemen [.334 in 2002] and a slugging percentage [.505] that was 100 points higher than ours [.405] at first base.

"I trust our scouts and staff, and I talked to a lot of people who played with him. He had a tough April last year, but he played in miserably cold weather. I lived in Chicago, so I know how brutal it is. It's not the home run park people think it is."

Neither is Dodger Stadium, where McGriff is a career .250 hitter with only five homers in 184 at-bats. But McGriff doesn't need a typical 30-homer, 100-RBI season to be considered an upgrade over Eric Karros, who hit 28 home runs in his last two seasons with the Dodgers before being traded to the Cubs this winter.

"Even if Fred regresses a little in slugging percentage and home runs, he'll still be an improvement from last year," Evans said. "I looked at this as a no-risk move. Sometimes you have to take a chance on a guy when the risk is in your favor."

It matters little to the Dodgers that McGriff has limited defensive range and trouble digging balls out of the dirt; Karros never won a Gold Glove and was an average defensive first baseman, at best.

They look at McGriff's bat, his professional approach, his even keel in the clubhouse and are convinced he will change the dynamics of a lineup that had only one power threat from the left side last season, right fielder Shawn Green.

In fact, take away Green's .558 slugging percentage, 42 homers and 114 RBIs, and the remaining Dodger left-handers combined for a .330 slugging percentage, 11 homers and 103 RBIs in 2002.

"To have another left-handed hitter with pop, that changes what other managers do, how they line up their pitchers, how they use their bullpen," said Jim Riggleman, Dodger bench coach. "Very few teams who hit strictly from the right side win because you see so much right-handed pitching.

"With the quality of sliders, you need left-handed hitters to take right-handers out of games. We've been very right-handed, but if you can make another club bring a lefty into the game, it gives [Brian] Jordan, [Paul] Lo Duca and [Adrian] Beltre an opportunity to take some whacks against a few lefties."

The Dodgers believe McGriff, a Tampa native who signed with the Devil Rays in 1998 so he could play in front of family and friends, will be invigorated by his return to a team that is supposed to contend for a division title. McGriff's teams combined for a .407 winning percentage the last five seasons.

"It gives you energy, it makes you look forward to coming to the park, and that's a big difference," said Jordan, the Dodger left fielder. "You know the fans are going to be excited, so you've got to come to the park excited and pumped up. You lose that in a losing situation. Here, I know his desire and energy levels are going to be high every night."

McGriff, however, doubts he'll be any different.

"It's great when you have big crowds and a chance to win every night, but you have to want to play every night, and something inside has to spark that," said McGriff, who helped the Atlanta Braves win the 1995 World Series.

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